Supreme Court Hears Pregnancy Discrimination Lawsuit

Former UPS employee Peggy Young, who alleges she was forced into unpaid leave after the company refused to accommodate her pregnancy restrictions, had her day in the Supreme Court this week.  Ms. Young filed a lawsuit alleging violations of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, and her case has created an unusual alliance between groups on both sides of the political aisle.

Former UPS Employee Lawsuit Alleges Pregnancy Discrimination

In 2006, Peggy Young, a driver, told UPS that she was no longer able to lift parcels weighing more than 20 pounds due to her pregnancy on advice from her treating physician. According to Ms. Young, her request was not unreasonable as the company routinely made accommodation for employees, including drivers who had lost licenses due to DUI convictions.  Despite her expectations, UPS denied her accommodation request, and, rather than shift her duties, the company placed Ms. Young on unpaid leave which caused her to lose medical coverage.

UPS alleges it was acting within its policy, which does not make accommodations for off-the-job medical conditions, including pregnancy.  Although the company is willing to accommodate at-work injury, it has a broad policy to deny requests for any condition that did not occur during work for UPS.  Claiming its policy is anti-discriminatory because it does not make exception for any reason, including pregnancy, UPS defended Ms. Young’s lawsuit by  arguing that all non-work related medical issues were treated the same.

Pregnancy Discrimination Act

According to attorneys representing Peggy Young, UPS engaged in discriminatory behavior because the company permitted accommodation for some situations, but not others.  The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 was passed by Congress to ensure that employers treat pregnant women the same as they would non-pregnant employees who are “similar in their ability or inability to work.” Accommodation for on-the-job medical conditions or DUI convictions, but not pregnancy would, according to Young’s lawyer Samuel Bagenstos, “would give least-favored-nation status to pregnant workers and we know that that can’t be something that Congress intended.”

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with Young, and felt that UPS’s broad policy to refuse accommodation for any off-the-job medical condition was not in violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.  According to the 4th Circuit, Young’s argument made the wrong comparison by simply pointing to other works who received accommodation for either on-the-job injuries or DUI convictions.  Instead, the proper comparison was to other employees who experience off-the-job medical issues and who were uniformly denied accommodation.  With pregnancy qualifying as an off-work condition, it was treated equally, albeit unfavorably.

Pregnancy Discrimination Case Creates Unusual Allies

Peggy Young’s lawsuit against UPS drew supporters from both sides of the political aisle, but is unusual in that groups that are typically opposed joined in supporting her position.  Before the Supreme Court heard oral arguments, the Justices were presented with several legal briefs written by interested parties who supported Ms. Young’s position.  Voicing support for a favorable interpretation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act were conservative pro-life organizations such as the Anglicans for Life and American Life League, and liberal pro-choice advocates including the ACLU and the National Women’s Law Center.  Although it is uncommon these parties find common ground, both agreed that women deserved accommodation during pregnancy, and filed arguments with the Supreme Court accordingly.

Whether or not the unusual cross-aisle collaboration and support sways the Supreme Court will remain to be seen, but the allegiance will not go unnoticed.  With workplaces becoming more flexible, it is unclear if the Justice’s decision will have significant effect on American commerce.  UPS has already announced a change in its policy to accommodate pregnant employees, and business experts suggest that more flexibility for pregnant workers would allow for businesses to maximize productivity without significant cost. 

Additionally, a handful of states mandate employers provide reasonable accommodation for pregnant women, and a Supreme Court interpretation on the Pregnancy Discrimination Act will not make state requirements moot.  Despite the issue carrying less practical weight than other recent challenges before the High Court, Peggy Young’s fight against UPS serves as a unique case that created a rare allegiance amongst political opponents who shared a common interest in promoting expansive rights for pregnant women.

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